Shubham Vanmali (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

A young man, who battled Learning Disability as a child and discovered purpose in swimming, is trying to complete one of the toughest challenges in open water swimming. This is his story; based on a conversation with his father. 

On May 29, 2018 the Navi Mumbai suburb of Nerul woke up to news of one from their midst completing a long distance swim in the US.

Twenty two year-old Shubham Vanmali had become the youngest person to complete the San Francisco Round Trip-Angel Island swim entailing a distance of 16.1 kilometers in the waters of the San Francisco Bay.

According to a statement from the North California Open Water Swimming Association (NCOWSA), the swim is reputed to be the most technically challenging in the Bay waters and has been attempted by more than 25 people over the past 40 years with only 12 completions. Besides being the youngest person yet to do it, Shubham is also the first Indian and the first to complete the swim under the newly formed NCOWSA. The swim starts and ends on the shared beach of San Francisco’s open water swim clubs, the South End Rowing Club and Dolphin Club. The course requires the swimmer to leave through the opening of Aquatic Park, swim past Alcatraz Island, swim around Angel Island through a body known as Raccoon Strait before returning past Alcatraz and back through the narrow opening of Aquatic Park. All this, while crossing three international shipping lanes twice, 12 ferry routes and swimming cross-current for the major part in 10-14.5C waters, the statement said.

May 29 evening, this blog caught up with Shubham’s father, Dhananjay Vanmali for a chat.

Shubham doing the San Francisco Round Trip-Angel Island swim (Photo: Pacific Open Water Swim Co)

He was due to leave for the US, the next day. Coming up was another swim, part of the main project Shubham has been working on. Over June 3-9, he will attempt swimming the Molokai Channel in Hawaii. According to Wikipedia the Molokai Channel aka Kaiwi Channel separates the islands of O’ahu and Molokai. The crossing of this channel is part of the Oceans Seven Challenge, which is the project Shubham has been working on for the past few years. The other crossings required for the Challenge are the North Channel (formerly called Irish Channel) linking the Irish Sea with the Atlantic Ocean, the Cook Strait between the North and South Island of New Zealand, the English Channel between Britain and France, the Catalina Channel in California, Tsugaru Strait between Honshu and Hokkaido in northern Japan and the Strait of Gibraltar connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. The only Indian to have done the Oceans Seven yet is Pune’s Rohan Dattatrey More who is also so far the youngest and the first Asian on the finishers’ list. The first person to complete the Challenge was Stephen Redmond of Ireland. A former rugby player and triathlete, he completed the Challenge over 2009-2012, at times requiring multiple attempts at some of the channel crossings. The Oceans Seven Challenge is positioned as swimming’s equivalent to the Seven Summits of mountaineering, which entails climbing the highest peak on each continent. The Challenge was conceived in 2008 by former professional marathon swimmer Steven Munatones who was world champion in the discipline in 1982 and coached the US national team for several years. Articles on the Challenge published in the media say that participants need to be hardcore endurance athletes with ability to swim in very cold and warm seas and be physically and mentally prepared to tackle adversity ranging from sea creatures to currents and strong winds.

Shubham; from the Dharamtar to Gateway of India swim (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

Shubham comes from a family of sportspersons. His father is a former state player in volleyball, his mother used to play kabaddi and his sister used to be a competitive swimmer. According to Dhananjay, Shubham’s career in swimming commenced after an initial foray into football. Around 2001, Nerul Gymkhana started Mission 2010 seeking to train talented youngsters in football, swimming, hockey, cycling, tennis and athletics. Shubham was selected for football under Mission 2010. Born 1995, he was quite small and very likely would have not been well developed and competitive in the sport by 2010. “ So he was shifted to swimming,’’ Dhananjay said, adding that by around 2009, Mission 2010 ended for want of funds. Following this, Shubham moved to practising at the pool in the complex housing Nerul’s D.Y. Patil Stadium. However, from the point of view of becoming a competitive swimmer, he seemed to have a problem. Although he trained well, at the time of competition, all that hard work couldn’t be made to focus and deliver performance. By around eighth standard, Shubham was formally diagnosed with Learning Disability. It took a while to locate the correct doctors but eventually intervention by good psychologists and sports psychologists helped.

Shubham crossing the English Channel (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

Around tenth standard, Shubham’s approach started to change. “ In the tenth standard he was selected for the state championship. By the twelfth, he had secured podium finish in the state championship in 1500 meters freestyle,’’ Dhananjay said. During his time in eleventh and twelfth standard, Shubham trained at the pool belonging to Father Agnel Sports Academy. Gokul Kamath became his coach in swimming. By the time Shubham reached college, he secured bronze in 100 meters, silver in 200 meters and gold in 400 meters and 1500 meters at the inter-college meet, Dhananjay said. Besides clear evidence of his emergent ability to focus his energies, it also indicated that his strength lay in the longer distances demanding endurance. In Shubham’s first year at college, there was a competition in Thane he participated in. Dhananjay recalled that a couple of senior Channel swimmers had come to attend it as guests; they were watching from the gallery. A month and a half after this event, Shubham approached his father and said that he wished to attempt crossing the English Channel. After discussing it with his coaches, the family decided to take up the project. Shubham started training for it. Besides his regular swimming, every Saturday and Sunday he used to go to Uran and be taken out to sea in a boat to do open water swimming for three to four hours.  “ We also did swimming at night,’’ Dhananjay said. For stepping stone to English Channel, Shubham first swam from Dharamtar to Gateway of India in Mumbai, a distance of roughly 35 kilometers. Then, on August 4, 2014, he swam across the English Channel becoming the youngest to do so at that point in time.

Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

Given he was going all the way to Europe and UK for doing this it made sense to attempt the Strait of Gibraltar soon thereafter. Approaching bad weather restricted his window for the Gibraltar swim. It was complicated further by the fact that the swim had to done the same day he was reaching the start point from UK. However Shubham went ahead. For a prospective record, the family first thought of trying a to and fro swim. Shubham gave it some thought and told Dhananjay that there was another option – he could try and reach the other side faster than any Asian had done so far. That’s what happened on August 14, 2014 – he became the fastest Asian to cross the Strait of Gibraltar, doing so in three hours, sixteen minutes. Dhananjay believes that it was from this trip to Europe and interaction with swimmers and other people he met that Shubham picked up the idea of Oceans Seven. With two of the required crossings done, it seemed worth pursuing.

Shubham (in the water, next to the kayak); from the Catalina Channel swim (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

In 2015, Shubham successfully accomplished the swim in the Catalina Channel. “ He began the swim one night and finished early next morning. It took him 10 hours and 42 minutes,’’ Dhananjay said. Shubham followed up Catalina with the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim on the US east coast, thus completing a smaller challenge in marathon swimming called Triple Crown – it is composed of swimming the English Channel, Catalina Channel and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. Then a reversal of fortunes happened. In 2016, Shubham travelled alone to Ireland to attempt the North Channel aka Irish Channel. His family searched on the Internet and rented suitable accommodation for him to stay in Ireland and prepare for the swim. The Irish Channel is rated one of the toughest swims in Oceans Seven. On the day of the attempt, after 13 hours of swimming and a mere two kilometers from successful completion, Shubham developed hypothermia. He had to abort the swim at that stage.  It left him feeling low for quite some time. “ He didn’t swim much. He was into cross-fit. Then last year, he began returning to swimming,’’ Dhananjay said. On the Internet, the Molokai Channel is described as the longest swim in Oceans Seven. The sea is deep here, nearly 700 meters. Early June, should the young man from Nerul accomplish the swim in the Molokai Channel; that would be four down, three to go in his pursuit of the Oceans Seven Challenge. He plans to go back to Ireland to attempt the North Channel again.

Dhananjay (left) and Shubham after the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

Swimming at all these locations and the training required for it, requires financial resources. His family has funded Shubham so far. That was also among reasons, he felt bad after the North Channel attempt didn’t succeed; he apparently felt he had wasted his parents’ hard earned money. Dhananjay works with Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL); his wife works with Vijaya Bank. He tried getting sponsors. According to him, he would have repeated meetings with prospective sponsors but on the day of providing sponsorship they would offer an amount much smaller than what was originally promised. There were also other problems. Projects of this sort are PR intensive and securing such traction is not the forte of every athlete or his / her family. On the other hand, mileage in the media is what sponsors seek in return for their support. Further sponsors easily warm up to supporting games because that is a picture of team effort which is a popularly liked theme. It is also one that is in line with corporate imagination. Adventure sports and endurance sports are on the other hand, typically solitary pursuits. “ These things affect my motivation level,’’ Dhananjay said. He still looks for sponsors but in the meantime dug into his own resources to fund Shubham’s project. Among means of raising resources, he sold an apartment he owned. “ This is a unique feat and it is my son who is doing it,’’ he said at his house in Nerul, less than a day left for his flight to the US and opportunity for family to watch Shubham attempt the Molokai Channel.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Dhananjay Vanmali.)

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